Profiles

You are currently browsing the archive for the Profiles category.

71ZNXNXW9PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In recent posts, I’ve written about noteworthy New York independent bookstores from years past, namely, Sunwise Turn, founded and operated by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke, which was located in midtown Manhattan from 1916 until it closed in 1927 and Gotham Book Mart, founded by Frances Steloff, an institution in literary New York for 87 years.  Another on the list of great New York biblio-hubs is Books & Co., owned and operated by Jeannette Watson from 1977-1997.

Back when Gotham Book Mart was still going strong in Midtown, Books & Co opened up on Madison Avenue and 74th Street, just south of the Whitney Museum.  Rather than becoming Gotham’s rival, the two stores peacefully coexisted as dual Meccas of independent bookselling.  As a matter of fact, according to Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. by Lynn Tillman, it was none other than Frances Steloff who once gave Jeanette Watson one of her most precious bits of advice.  “You never say to customers you’re out of a book; you walk them to the section.  Even if you don’t have the book, they may see something else they like,” (57) Steloff told Watson, and she took it to heart, creating an inviting bookstore where one was welcome to browse without the pressure to purchase.

In the beginning, Books & Co. was a partnership with Burt Britton, formerly the manager of the review books section at The Strand, who established some of Books & Co.’s signature traditions. It was Britton’s idea to have their books signed by the authors to add a personal touch, and he also invented “The Wall.”  Just to the left when you walked in to the store, the Wall represented spectrum of important works of literature, including many translations.  As the Wall became well known, writers came by often to see if their books were on it.  In January 1980, however, after falling on hard times due to lax bookkeeping and a large debt due to overstock (singed books could not be returned) Britton and Watson went separate ways.

After this separation, Watson worked tirelessly to make sure Books & Co. remained the cultural hub it had become.  The store hosted book signings, publishing parties, and author readings every week. Watson also had an art gallery in the store, putting up exhibitions of work she personally liked.  In the 1980’s, the store developed an extensive photography section in and had photography exhibitions of works by Andre Kertesz, Geoffrey James, and Lynn Davis, to name a few.

tumblr_n0j8ox1Kb81s30ttco1_1280

Book & Co., founded by Jeannette Watson, was a New York institution from 1977-1997

Big box bookstores also have readings and books signings, but you do not often see the authors themselves browsing their shelves on their own time to see if their books have been placed front and center.  This is all left to publicity departments who pay a premium for advantageous placement.  At Books & Co., it was important to writers and readers alike to be part of the store’s inner-circle, to belong to the Books & Co. family.

When the big box stores started spreading throughout Manhattan, however, things eventually changed for Books & Co., not due to any diminishing sense of community, but due to the almighty dollar.  Sales dipped dramatically, and even the store’s most loyal customers could not resist buying books at a discount despite the fact that it meant shopping elsewhere. Watson recalls that “What Books & Co. offered, in the face of discounting, in place of discounting, was something more personal.  The feeling was we knew who came into our shop and what they like to read.” (Bookstore, 204)

But in the end that was not enough to keep the store going, and it closed its doors in 1997.  “I didn’t know exactly what I should feel, what the bookstore represented,” she says of the store’s closing: “It was greater than any one individual’s feelings.  I felt sad that the city would lose this bookstore—if I were one of my customers, that’s what I would say.  I do feel that the bookstore, in the way its been run by me for twenty years, is anachronistic.  If the bookstore were going to continue, it would have to be totally changed, computerized, Internetted.  Books & Co. was like the last nineteenth-century bookstore in the twentieth century, almost the twenty-first.  I wish I could have passed on the mantle and I wish there were someone who would be willing to take the bookstore, invent it in a new way, a modern way, and continue to have great books, the good books, and all the readings” (Bookstore, 272)

 

 

 

Tags: , , ,

BMC-Logo

We love books. We wish there were a bumper sticker that says; I’d rather be reading. We really love it all—thrillers and mysteries, literary novels, histories, biographies, cookbooks, how-to’s, self-improvement, science and more. We started this book club years ago because we wanted to share our passion and let people know about great new books. We’ve changed and evolved over the years—some of our books would probably make the founders blush. Bottom line, our editors still want to make sure devoted fans get the latest books by their favorite authors. And we like nothing more than to introduce exciting discoveries that readers will recommend to their friends. What inspires us to do it? Simple, we love books.

—from the Book of the Month website

 

To “read” a “book” these days can mean many things.  The definition of a book can mean so many things.  But there was a time when a book was a book, and for a book to be chosen as the “Book of the Month” was to be given the book-keeping seal of approval, so to speak.

The Book of the Month Club (BOMC) was founded in New York City in 1926 by Harry Scherman, former copyrighter for J. Walter Thompson and co-founder of the “Little Leather Library,” a mail order service for miniature reprints of “great books.”  Scherman, along with partners Max Sackheim and Robert Haas, established the Club as its own household brand, going from 4,000 subscribers to 550,000 in twenty years, where they became seen as a sound selector of good books and sold titles by means of its own prestige.  A title or author did not need to have an existing reputation before being chosen as a Book of the Month, as the act of being chosen in itself was the barometer of success.

According to the list of “Privileges of Subscribers,” the Club works as follows:

Every month the best book of the month, chosen by the Selecting Committee, is sent to each subscriber (unless he specifies some other preference) and is billed at the current price set by the publisher in each case, plus the few cents for postage.  The book sent each month ranges in price from $1 to $3, but in no case more than $3.

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

A 1965 magazine advertisement for The Book of the Month Club

When it was launched, one of BOMC’s key selling points was free access to its “selection service,” where a Selecting Committee of five members determined each month what was the “best” book to read, leaving the subscriber the peace of mind that the choice had been made democratically and thoughtfully by a committee of qualified members by secret ballot.

The original members of the Selecting Committee were:

Henry Seidel Canby (1878-1961), Chairman, a critic, editor, and professor at Yale University. He edited the Yale Review and then the Literary Review supplement of the New York Evening Post, the most influential literary weekly in the United States in its time.

Heywood Broun (1888-1939), a journalist and founder of the American Newspaper Guild best remembered for his writing on social issues and his championing of the underdog.

Dorothy Canfield (1879-1958), a best-selling author as well as an educational reformer, social activist, and best-selling American who supported women’s rights, racial equality, and lifelong education.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957), journalist, novelist, essayist and poet and the the well-known author of many books including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.

William Allen White (1868-1944), a renowned editor, author, and leader of the Progressive movement.

This is indeed an impressive group of referees, although how much variation in taste and opinion one can find in any group of five individuals is questionable.  According to the BOMC brochure, “In order to be chosen as the “book-of-the-month,” a majority of these five individuals has to give a book first place among all the books considered.”   The Committee members decided what titles and authors would be read by the Club’s thousands of members and could create a literary success in an instant.  The brochure does go on to point out that:

It should be clearly understood that this combined judgment is not set up as being either final or infallible.  The judges themselves would be the last ones to consider it so.  It is simply a practical method of arriving at the most outstanding book each month.  The theory is—and it works!—that any book appealing strongly to five individuals (of such good judgment and such differing tastes themselves) is bound to be an outstanding book.

Enough subscribers agreed with this theory to ensure the lasting success of the BOMC into the twenty-first century.  Its status as arbiter of literary taste has diminished significantly over the years as new technologies brought new ways of bringing books to the public.  In the age of the big box stores, Amazon, Audible, iTunes, and Abe Books, not to mention sites such as Goodreads and Shelf Awareness, individual readers make informed choices based on industry recommendations and audience reviews and can “consume” their reading material in a plethora of media, only one of which is the good ol’ fashioned printed book.

Further reading:

  • The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club by Charles Lee (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1958) provides a history of the club, the book selection and membership procedures, and a list of all selections, dividends, and alternates from 1926 to 1957.
  • The Books of the Century, a website compiled by Daniel Immerwahr, lists the Club’s main selections from 1926 until the mid-1970s.
  • Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill, 1997) offers a cultural analysis of the BOMC and its readers.
  • William Zinsser, A Family of Readers; An informal portrait of the Book-of-the-Month Club and its members on the occasion of its 60th Anniversary. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1986. 74 pp.

 

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

A letter inviting readers to subscribe to The Book of the Month Club

 

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

The Book of the Month Club enrollment form (1927)

View a PDF of the 1927 Book of the Month Club brochure here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tags:

For a general appreciation of where you are, it helps to know who came before you and what was done.  Especially if it helps you now.
—Philip Copp in “One Track Mind”

Copp-bowlinggreenIn 1978, Philip Copp intended to spend a month working on an article about the art in New York City subway stations that he hoped to sell to a magazine.  Today, thirty-four years later, Copp, also known as Philip Ashforth Coppola, a nom de plume of sorts, has probably not spent a day during which he did not work on this “article,” now a multi-volume collection of books, some self-published in limited edition and some in manuscript form.

As he discovered the artistic riches displayed in each station, Copp was overcome by the need to record what all the engineers, architects, artisans, and artists had done, before their work faded and they were forgotten forever.  The environment underground, vandalism, and, most of all, time is eating away at the intricate mosaic designs that adorn the walls of each and every station, and many are being replaced by plain white tiles that forever erase any trace of what was once there.

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Phil Copp (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

Jeremy Workman, a filmmaker who recently made a documentary about Copp entitled “One Track Mind,” describes his subject in an interview with Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

Phil is a subway historian extraordinaire. He is a regular guy from New York and New Jersey who works at a printing press. A kind sweet man. A bit on the quiet side. An avid church-goer. But he’s had this lifelong obsession with the decor and design of the New York City subway stations. He’s spent most of his adult life creating a study called “Silver Connections,” a massive homemade, self-published, illustrated encyclopedia of the decor in the stations. He’s studied it historically, artistically, and sociologically. It’s like a billion pages and it has literally thousands of amazingly detailed hand-drawn sketches and diagrams.

In the same interview, Copp describes his own work:

My study has two purposes. First, to record the art & architecture of the NYC subway stations in word and picture. Second, to reveal the persons who designed or crafted the decor. Both subjects of my study were neglected and unheralded (especially in the late 1970’s, when I began this undertaking).

Volumes from Copp's SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)

Volumes from Copp’s SILVER CONNECTIONS (image: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York)

It seems Copp is adding to Silver Connections every waking moment that he is not at work or church.  All day on weekends and most evenings, sometimes into the night.  He is a man obsessed, possessed even, single-mindedly cataloging the disappearing artwork of the 496 stations, according to his count, of the New York City subway system.

In addition to “One Track Mind,” Copp has been featured in The New York Times, on New York 1, the BBC, and even on Japanese television.  He says he enjoys getting media attention and is willing to take a day off to do interviews, but you can tell what he really wants to do is to get back to work on his magnum opus, his epic love letter to New York City.  “The city cannot be what it is without rapid transit,” he says.  “Buses are great, subways are better.”

 

Silver Connections

Silver Connections

We are very pleased to be the distributor of the newly revised 2013 edition of Silver Connections Volume I (Books 1 & 2), as well as  Silver Connections Volumes III & IV.  For more information and to purchase copies, please visit our Silver Connections page.

Watch “NYC Subway Buff Chronicles Past In Full Detail,” Jose Martiez’s piece on Phil Copp in NY1 here

To watch the film One Track Mind directed by Jeremy Workman on Amazon Instant Video, click here.

Tags: , , , ,

“I learned long ago that if I go out somebody I’ve been wanting to see very badly is sure to come in.  I’ve missed so many I’ve grieved about.”

—Frances Steloff

wisemenfishheresignThe Gotham Book Mart (GBM) was an institution in literary New York for 87 years.  Founded on West 45th Street in 1920 by Frances Steloff, the shop was frequented by writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, John Updike, J. D. Salinger and Eugene O’Neill, and its customers included a host of prominent New Yorkers —George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Calder, Stephen Spender, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, John Guare, Katharine Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name only a few, as well as numerous high-profile visitors who would make sure to drop in when they were passing through town. At various points, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Tennessee Williams, and Patti Smith worked as clerks there.  The shop also exhibited the works of the artist Edward Gorey and is credited with launching the artist’s career.

gotham40317Steloff is credited with supporting the careers of major writers back when they were unknown or unaccepted, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Although censored, Steloff sold James Joyce’s Ulysses.  She also sold D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover in the 1920’s and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer 1930’s, which led to lawsuits and landmark decisions on censorship.

Despite its renown, GBM was a very personal bookshop, as Steloff put her heart and soul into the store, working long hours and hand picking stock.  A beloved figure, Steloff was also very exacting and an economizer, and many who worked for her did not or could not meet her high standards.  She was also known to be extremely generous, sending money to writers needing to make rent or pay bills without any guarantee of repayment.

Steloff lived a childhood of abuse and poverty in Saratoga Springs and then Boston. She eventually made her way to New York City where she worked in a department store, starting in the corsets department and later moving on to the magazine subscriptions counter.  Using the connections she made, she secured several clerk positions in bookstores, the last of which was Brentano’s, a major New York bookseller.

On her way to work, Steloff often passed Sunwise Turn on Thirty-Fifth Street.  Founded by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray Clarke in 1916, this bookshop specialized in quality publications, particularly fine art books.  Taking Jenison and Mowbray as inspiration perhaps, Stelhoff took a chance and rented a 15 by 12 foot ground floor room with a window and named it Gotham Book & Art.

gotham20315W G. Rogers, in his book Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart muses that it was Steloff’s difficult and deprived childhood that propelled her toward a successful life in bookselling:

…The Gotham Book Mart, sanctuary of the written word, did in fact originate in the unliterary vacationland of Saratoga Springs.  A perceptive girl learned key lessons from hardships, developed a love for all living creatures, and grew up to have an irresistible passion for the very things she was deprived of: books and education.  Given plenty of reading matter, books might never have become a necessity and she might not have felt driven to her long-sustained efforts.  She was teased and tantalized into success.  Young Steloff and books were donkey and carrot.  (23-24)

Though a slow and an uphill climb at first—the store was open from 9 AM until midnight and Steloff alone performed all tasks, from cleaning to bookkeeping to clerking—she eventually cultivated a loyal clientele.  Her very first customer was a Broadway idol of some note who was performing in a show in the theater next door.  More theater people from the neighborhood began coming to her for books, as well as acquaintances from Brentano’s and other bookstores.  No doubt Steloff exuded an air of determination and dedication that attracted her customers and made them want to return.

Steloff’s specializations came to her by chance: theater books because she was in such close proximity to so many theaters, and art because she once bid on a collection of hunting images, only to be given Japanese woodblock prints when she went to claim her purchase.  Duped and dispirited and knowing nothing about Japanese art, she put the prints out for a dollar a piece with the hope of recouping her expenditure.  It turned out, through the tips of collectors who bought pieces from her, that the prints were true collectors pieces and could fetch much more.

After a move to Forty-Seventh Street, a divorce, and a name change to Gotham Book Mart, Steloff’s shop began taking on its identity as a place that nurtured both writers and readers.  She began stocking “Little Magazines” that printed artistic work that was not money-making for larges presses. She began her career in magazine sales, and she later supported them by displaying magazines in her shop’s window, buying magazine advertisement space, and listing the magazines in her catalogs.  Rogers explains in Wise Men Fish Here:

As editor and writers commenced to urge the untried, untested, and often inscrutable avant-garde writings on GBM, it stocked more and more of them.  The proprietor describes her role modestly: “Perhaps it would be more flattering to believe that we were prophets about the great new writers who were then emerging in these little reviews.   But on the contrary I was led step by step by opportunities, and I simply responded to the needs and requests for an outlet.”  Her customers were still educating her.  (113)

Steloff went far beyond stocking obscure literary magazines to help authors.  She often lent or even gave them money when they were in need.  She cashed checks for them found them rides and places to stay and even once tried to begin a fund for poets to give money to those most in need but found that need greatly outweighed available funds.

gothambookmart

Steloff became friendly with the writer Christopher Morley, who brought his friends Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and W.S. “Bill” Hall to the shop where they turned the back yard of GBM into an art gallery and hangout.  Although many of the great minds of New York spent time there, it was not an intellectual salon but more of a place to have fun with like-minded peers.  Rogers explains:

It was good-fellows-get-together, laughter in the cloister, wit and fun spiced with learning.  Some of the decade’s best minds relaxed in congenial company; they dashed off doggerel, quipped in ancients and modern languages, and recited limericks that were for reciting only, not for printing. (160)

In the mid-1940s, Steloff almost went out of business, but through Christopher Morley she was able to buy a building owned by Columbia University.  After two decades at #51 she moved to #41 Forty-Seventh Street on the same block.  She continued to be exacting and and frugal in the postwar era but fewer people were willing to earn a living on her terms anymore, hard work and low pay in exchange for the opportunity to be among books.

GBM’s stock was divided into three sections, new, secondhand, and rare.  It also stocked magazines, regular and “little.”  Steloff lived in an apartment above the store and was therefore able to continue to work long hours devoting herself to the bookstore.  When Steloff turned 80, she finally decided to “retire.”  She sold the shop to Andreas Brown, a devoted customer and book lover, in 1967 on the condition that she could continue living in the apartment above the shop for the rest of her life and work at the store.  Frances Steloff died in New York in 1989 at the age of 101.

lss+april+1975

Steloff with Andreas Brown

A New York Magazine listing for GBM describes the shop in its later years under Brown:

Owner Andreas Brown and his flock of charming misanthropes are happy to help—or engage in fiery intellectual debate—when called upon, but they’re also just as content to read in a corner and leave browsing customers alone. (Sometimes, they don’t even look up when you walk in.) While the store stocks a little bit of everything, its specialty is 20th Century Arts and Literature, so if you need a signed play by Samuel Beckett or the complete works of James Joyce, you’re in the right place.

In 2007, GBM closed its doors for good.  Brown, who had major financial difficulties, was forced to close the store, and its stock was sold in a general sale, its inventory going to The University of Pennsylvania Libraries after an anonymous donor purchased over 200,000 items worth millions of dollars and donated it to the library.

Gotham Book Mart was an icon in a particular tradition of bookselling in New York.  Like the back room of Charles Wiley’s bookshop on Reade Street in the 1820’s, known as the “Den,” and Jenison and Mowbray Clarke’s Sunwise Turn, as well as Jeanette Watson’s Books & Co. and the 21st century Greenlight Books and McNally Jackson Bookstore, GBM was always more than just a store.  To quote Rogers once again:

It is significant that she always refers to the Gotham Book Mart as a shop, not a store.  Even more in the 1920s than now, there was a distinction.  A store was for selling, a shop was for building and creating.  She always did more than sell.  If salesmanship has satisfied her, corsets would have, too.  If selling just any book had satisfied her, she would have stayed on Vesey Street where she had earned more than she did now. (78)

Yes, Frances Steloff was a builder and creator and Gotham Book Mart was most certainly a shop in the true sense—a place where writer, reader, and proprietor harmoniously coexisted and commingled, a place where the written word came alive.

***********************

The history of the store is covered in the documentary film, Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller, directed in 1987 by Deborah Dickson.

Rogers, W G. Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Print.

Tannenbaum, Matthew. My Years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Stelloff, Proprietor. S.l.: Worthy Shorts, 2009. Print.

 

 

Tags: , ,

City Notebook by McCandlish Phillips

City Notebook by McCandlish Phillips

Earlier this year, New York lost one of its all-time greatest chroniclers.  Mclandlish Phillips, a reporter for the New York Times who later left journalism to spread the Gospel, became known for his local reporting, as well as his lyrical articles about vanishing institutions in an ever-changing New York.

In his 1962 collection of writings, City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York, Phillips remembers “Book Row,” the area just south of Union Square centered on Fourth Avenue that used to be New York’s used book center.  He recalls a conversation between Jack Biblio and Jack Tannen, founders of Biblio & Tannen at 63 Fourth Avenue:

“We came from a slum neighborhood—East New York in Brooklyn,” Mr. Biblio said.  “In those days, a penny was a lot, but a bunch of us were terribly interested in books and the rental of a Tarzan book in a store on Pitkin Avenue was ten cents for three days.

“Five of us kids each chipped in two cents, and all five of us read that whole book in three days.  We didn’t need a quick-reading course.”

“To work for one dollar a day in a bookstore—just to be in a bookstore—that was Nirvana,” Mr. Biblio said.  “Kids today won’t start for ninety dollars a week.  It’s nothing today for a boy ten years old to come in and pull out a ten dollar bill.  It’s quite a different world.”

“We started the business in 1928,” Mr. Tannen said.  “We slept in the back room and we worked eighteen hours a day and we each took a dollar-a-day out for the first three years.”

“We didn’t have hours.  As long as a customer was in the place, we stayed open,” Mr. Biblio said.

“If a customer came in and spent one dollar—big sale—we’d go out and have coffee and,” Mr. Tannen said, implying Danish.

Phillips’ book is chock full of anechdotes such as these, that only a seasoned reporter, who was also a seasoned New Yorker, could amass.

McCandlish Phillips getting the lowdown from a highly placed circus source (image: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

McCandlish Phillips getting the lowdown from a highly placed circus source (image: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

The breadth of Phillips’ coverage is also evidenced by the headlines to which his byline is attached, such as: “City Surlpus of Elks, Rams and Yaks Declines: High Bids Totaling $793.50 Accepted for 34 Left-Over Animals from Zoos,” “In Van Cortlandt: Bodies Washed Up on Lake Shore—Park Aide Says Silt Cut Off Oxygen,” “Singer Takes Charm to Rikers Island,” and “Aged Wait in Stony Solitude, But Not for Buses.”

Phillips’s most renowned article appeared on Page 1 on Sunday, Oct. 31, 1965, under the headline “State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origin.”  In this article, that won him widespread praise and notice, Phillips reveals that Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who was the Grand Dragon of the New York State Ku Klux Klan, a chief organizer of the national Klan and a former national secretary of the American Nazi Party was also a Jew — a former Hebrew school student who had been bar mitzvahed at 13.

While still working at the Times, Phillips helped found The New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a Pentecostal congregation.  In 1973, Phillips left the Times and journalism to preach the Gospel on the Columbia University campus and to work with the fellowship.  Phillips died in April of this year at the age of 85.

McClandish Phillips in 1962 (image: John Orris/The New York Times)

McCandlish Phillips in 1962 (image: John Orris/The New York Times)

Phillips will be remembered by fans of New Yorkiana for his unique flair for New York writing and his commitment to getting the story straight.  The  New York Times obituary for Phillips quotes his 1969 article about the closing of Lindy’s Delicatessen, a New York institution:

“What kind of a day is today? It’s the kind of a day that if you wanted a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s, you couldn’t get it.”

Near the end of the article, he wrote, with plain-spoken, impeccable logic:

“The locusts stripped the place of menus and ashtrays and other mementos. There were conflicting claimants to possession of the last bagel. As a souvenir, a bagel is not much good. It is perishable and it also lacks proof. Anyone can hold up a bagel and say, ‘This is the last bagel from Lindy’s.’ ”

Phillips, McCandlish. City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York. New York: Liveright, 1974.

Tags: ,

HarrietSpy1When I grow up I’m going to find out everything about everybody and put it all in a book.

—Harriet M. Welsch in Harriet the Spy

 Harriet M. Welsch would have made an excellent blogger.  The title character in Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 young adult novel is a spunky Upper East Side kid with a constant burning desire to record her observations of those around her as well as her own feelings toward them.  She has probably inspired a generation of aspiring writers, including myself, to observe and record their worlds, no matter how small or mundane.

Harriet’s world revolves around her uptown neighborhood and the characters who inhabit it.  She wants to be a spy and a writer when she grows up.  And to this end, she fills notebook after notebook with notes gathered during her spy route, a series of homes she clandestinely visits each day, and snarky comments about her classmates.  Through Harriet’s eyes, we see the struggles of the local grocer’s family, the loneliness of a cat-loving bachelor, the neuroses of a bed-ridden hypochondriac, as well as many other characters, all through the eyes of an eleven-year-old child.

We also see Harriet’s life as an upper-middle-class New York kid as she is often ignored by her self-involved parents and left in the care of Old Golly, her wise and loving nurse and, after the nurse leaves the household, the cook.  When Harriet gets into a fix, she does not rely on lessons learned from her mother or father but, rather, tries to imagine what Ole Golly would advise her to do.

An illustration by the author from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

An illustration by the author from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet’s keen powers of observation get her in trouble when her classmates find and read one of her notebooks, revealing her many harsh criticisms (as well as compliments) about them.  Harriet later apologizes for her comments by printing a retraction.  The book quietly condones, within reason, eavesdropping as well as (white) lying and praises those who stick to their convictions even if it means talking back to elders.  In a letter, Old Golly tells Harriet, “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth”

When the book was first published, some tried to have the book banned, stating that it “teaches children to lie, spy, back-talk and curse,” but this effort was unsuccessful and Harriet the Spy went on to become a juvenile classic.  It spoke to many audiences, but especially to readers who sympathized with Harriet’s status as an outsider at school.  An NPR report on the book explains:

Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy

Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy

These days, girls can read books about all kinds of kids, facing all kinds of real problems. But back in the 1960s, when Kathleen Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was growing up, the pickings were slimmer.

“There was a whole genre called the ‘tomboy story’ where a girl rebels in that way, but at the end everything is wonderful because she really is a girl and she gets very feminine,” remembers Horning.

Horning says she was a tomboy who didn’t want to reform. Later on, she realized she was a lesbian. What does that have to do with Harriet the Spy? A lot, says Horning. The book’s author Louise Fitzhugh, was also gay, and although Harriet’s sexuality is never touched on in the book, her boy’s clothes and bravado sent a message to some kids who felt different and didn’t know why.

“I have talked to so many adult lesbians who felt the same way about Harriet,” Horning says. “Particularly if you were growing up in the sixties when you really didn’t have any other people like you, Harriet was it. What the book told us is that we could be ourselves and survive.”

Harriet was a role model for all children who struggled with difference.  She shows readers, girls and boys alike, that belief in oneself, regardless of how others see you, is not only essential but liberating.  Although she apologizes publicly for what she wrote about others, she never apologizes to herself for being honest, boldly declaring, “I love myself.”  She is still the same Harriet we met at the beginning of the novel, only a bit older, and a lot wiser.

 

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet, the Spy. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

 

Tags: , , ,

jernigan bookCandy Jernigan’s (1952-1991) world extended way beyond the streets of New York City, yet she lived in New York during much of her too-short life, and it was the streets of her adopted hometown that were often her muse and canvas.

Jernigan was born in a decidedly unglamorous part of Miami, attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, moved to Provincetown, MA and then back to New York again in 1980 when she began collecting her “evidence,” which Jernigan described as “any and all physical proof” that she had been somewhere.  In his introduction to the monograph Evidence: The Art of Candy Jernigan, Stokes Howell explains:

In collecting and creating her art, Candy operated like a forensic pathologist.  Traveling down the street with her, you quickly got into her habit of examining the ground in front of you to see what treasures might have been tossed away on the sidewalk or into the gutter.  If she was on the lookout for pop tops from soft drink cans, you found yourself walking with your head down scanning from side to side looking for pop tops, too, even though you had no reason to, because Candy only used objects she herself collected and documented.  But you did it anyway, because you had begun to look at the world through her eyes.

New York City Rat by Candy Jernigan

New York City Rat by Candy Jernigan

Howell also quotes Ken Tisa, Jernigan’s friend and fellow artist, who says:

She made me rethink things I would ordinarily dismiss or run from.  She was one artist who pointed us in the direction of beauty within the scum of the city.  Everyone who wants to see art in New York looks up.  Candy looked down.  She was interested in what was most banal, what people didn’t want.  She wanted to make us desire the undesirable and she succeeded.

Pot Crushed on Houston by Candy Jernigan

Pot Crushed on Houston by Candy Jernigan

Jernigan framed a crushed pot she found on the street and titled the work, “Pot Crushed on Houston.”  She found a dead rat, had it stuffed, and titled it “New York City Rat.”  Her work “Found Dope II” consists of crack vials and caps she found in her neighborhood and an accompanying map indicating the place and time at which each item was found.  She also drew sketches of food and landscapes that she sometimes embellished with labels, photos, or found text and collected objects and ephemera during her travels abroad that she compiled into elaborate travel journals that included dust from the Sistine Chapel, anise seeds from India, and a coffee stain from Gambia.

To look at Jernigan’s work, documentation of the ordinary that was specific to her own life, is quite moving, even in reproduction.  She gives us glimpses of her New York life, her New York story, and it makes us realize that hers is just one of millions of interconnected yet unique stories, each as significant and meaningful as the next and reminds us that our own stories rely on those of others to be told.

 

Jernigan, Candy, Laurie Dolphin, and John B. Taylor. Evidence: The Art of Candy Jernigan. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.

New York: 24 Cheez Doodles by Candy Jernigan

New York: 24 Cheez Doodles by Candy Jernigan

 

Tags: ,

McNally Jackson Books at 52 Prince Street in Manhattan

McNally Jackson Books at 52 Prince Street in Manhattan

Sarah McNally is a matchmaker. But please
 do not go to her for dating advice. McNally matches readers with books the old-fashioned way, by placing them in your hands. She carefully and thoughtfully curates the books sold in her independent bookstore, McNally Jackson, at 52 Prince Street just east of Lafayette.

Brimming with enthusiasm, McNally reigns over her modest bookselling empire with an almost maternal concern for her patrons. She has made it her goal to make sure their curiosity and intellect are nourished and comforted by making available an array of hand-picked titles in a pleasant, airy environment conducive to both contemplation and interaction. What is the secret to McNally Jackson’s success at a time when bookstores, and even books, are falling by the wayside
in the electronic age? McNally cannot put her finger on it, but she credits it to alchemy—the interaction of people and place and books, something that you cannot duplicate online.

McNally is not only a bookseller, she is an avid reader. She leads the bookstore’s international fiction reading group and is a member of a Proust reading group. She is also often present
at the bookstore’s numerous book talks and signings that have made McNally Jackson the cultural hub of the neighborhood. Their roster is a who’s who list of writers, editors, and critics that more often than not attracts a standing-room-only crowd. These events, along with the reading groups, storytimes for children, and even puppet shows, make it so much more than just a bookstore. It verges on being what Ray Oldenburg termed a “third place,” where one goes to spend time as a bridge between home and work life, a place that facilitates creative interaction among people.

McNally is thus truly a matchmaker. Through her bookstore, she not only unites reader and book, she brings people together to discuss literature, ideas, and fairy tales. She clearly does this all from the heart and not with an eye on some bottom line, though she is undeniably an astute businesswoman. Sincerity and business acumen—now there’s a perfect match!

 

Tags: , ,

WOMEN'S WORK by Anne Tolstoi Wallach

WOMEN’S WORK by Anne Tolstoi Wallach

The name Anne Tolstoi Wallach may not immediately ring a bell today, but her story will be familiar to anyone who watches Mad Men, AMC’s popular drama series set in in the ruthlessly competitive world of New York advertising in the 1960’s.  Wallach (no relation to Leo)  was a real life ad woman in the age of ad men.  She is also the author of the best-selling 1981 Women’s Work, a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman clawing her way to the top of the male-dominated Madison Avenue advertising business that she wrote at the age of 52.  She received an $850,000.00 advance for Women’s Work, the equivalent of anywhere from $2-$4 million today, the highest advance for a first novel ever paid to a woman at that time.

The back cover of the 1982 Signet paperback edition of Women’s Work summarizes:

Domina Drexler’s scintillating ads fill the slick pages of America’s choicest magazines and the walls of her magnificent corner office are graced with the advertising industry’s most prestigious awards.  But after more than a decade of dedication and creative triumphs, she’s still not a senior top-management executive.  She aims to become one—with or without the help of the man she loves…

Women’s Work offers a fascinating view of the grit behind the glamour in the high-pressured world of advertising.  It is a novel for every woman who wonders what success costs and what success is worth, and for every man who wonders what today’s women really want.

Wallach, a native New Yorker, attended Radcliffe and wrote for the Harvard Crimson.  As a working mother, she had her children using vacation days, taking two weeks for her first son and three weeks for her second.  It took Wallach 14 months of writing all day on weekends to write Women’s Work while she held down a full-time job as an advertising executive.  According to a September 7, 1981 article in People Magazine:

Though she has long since skirted the barriers to women in her business, she admits her novel’s impetus “comes from my own battle to become a vice-president at an ad agency where I was head of a creative group. All the guys with the same job were VPs, and I wasn’t. When I started to fuss about it, somebody said, Tell her she is one. She won’t know the difference.’ “

For sure, the position of women in advertising and the workplace in general has improved some since the publication of Women’s Work, but if you consider the fact that women still make and average of 9 percent less than men, even when studies consider education level, job experience and years in the workforce, this advance is not quite large enough to declare, a la the famous 1968 Virginia Slims slogan,   “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Tags: , , , ,

Rebecca Federman writes one of my favorite blogs, Cooked Books, about all things food and books.  She is the Culinary Collections Librarian at the New York Public Library and co-curator, with Laura Shapiro, of the exhibition “Lunch Hour NYC.

Mogen Dovid Delicatessen Magazine

by Rebecca Federman

Working in a research library has its advantages. I’ve met lots of interesting people, encountered fascinating objects serendipitously, and wandered around the deep crevices of a landmark building.

But an unusual condition can occur when you’ve worked in a library for a long time. You run the risk of becoming jaded.

First Folio of Shakespeare? Been there, done that.

Gutenberg Bible? Please. I walk by it every day.

But when you do stumble upon something new — something exciting and revelatory and unexpected — you have a tendency to appreciate it all the more.

Such as delicatessen trade journals.

I was introduced to these periodicals by Roberta Saltzman, the librarian in the Dorot Jewish Division, who has cultivated a world-class collection of Jewish cookery materials. Among the fascinating items in her collection is the Mogen Dovid Delicatessen Magazine, published in New York from 1930 until 1939.

Firmly union (“Live and Let Live” and “In Union there is Strength” are prominently featured on each issue), and printed in both English and Yiddish, Mogen Dovid covers the world of New York delicatessen culture and features articles related to racketeering, Brooklyn elections, trade overhead and union matters.

One of the most interesting parts of each issue is their Fair Price List which lists “at which the following food should be sold in all delicatessen stores.” The March, 1931 issue, for example, proposes that roast chicken (depending on its size) should cost between $1.50 and $2.50; the Temptation Sandwich (tongue, sliced tomato, and India relish) should cost 30 cents; cream cheese and olive sandwich, 20 cents, and a sardine sandwich, 15 cents.

And needless to say the ads are priceless. From Dr. Dick’s True Fruit Drinks to Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic (when did it start being called Cel-ray?), these periodicals document local purveyors, distributors, and restaurants that have all but disappeared from view. With the exception of old business directories, these publications are some of the only reminders we have left of these institutions.

So while David Sax writes about the demise of the physical deli in his book Save the Deli, at least he can be reassured that we’ve saved the deli periodicals.

Visit Cooked Books at http://cookedbooks.blogspot.com/

The following is a post that originally appeared on Sunday, February 14, 2010 in Cooked Books.

Tags: , , , , ,

« Older entries